Review by Fiona Duncan, published 13th August 2009.
Question: which five-star London hotel contains a solid marble staircase that soars to a dizzying 164ft cupola and defies the laws of architecture by being suspended over an arch? Answer: the Renaissance Chancery Court, a hotel whose existence, I must admit, had entirely passed me by.
Better still (if you, like me, enjoy such unexpected extras in your hotel), the historic building is central, yet tucked away from the pulsating city. The imposing entrance arch, a former carriageway, of 252 High Holborn leads to an oasis of sudden quiet: a courtyard surrounded by grandiose stone façades.
This great rectangle was, until the Nineties, the flamboyant Edwardian headquarters of Pearl Assurance, affectionately known to generations of employees as "252". There were kitchens and dining rooms, glee clubs and cricket teams, amateur dramatics and ladies' sewing circles, literary and horticultural societies and annual excursions to the seaside. When it became vacant, a Hong Kong property company bought it and, under the guidance of English Heritage, restored it to its early 20th-century glory. It opened as a hotel in 2000.
Marriott won the management contract (Renaissance is an upmarket brand of Marriott Hotels), although you'll be hard pressed to find the Marriott name anywhere, as if it were a dirty secret they'd rather not reveal. It's supposed to be a unique luxury hotel, not a chain one.
But it is a chain one. And here lies the disappointment with this otherwise exceptional property. Contrasting with the astonishing original features on display in the public rooms – particularly the rare and lovely marble panels and pillars, but also Cuban mahogany and French walnut – the decoration dreamed up by Marriott is about as interesting as processed cheese and the 356 bedrooms are bland copies of so many other bland Marriott rooms around the world. On the plus side, they are large and they are silent: our standard room was probably the quietest London bedroom we have ever slept in – no mean accolade.
And what of the famous staircase? Unless your room is on the High Holborn side of the rectangle, you have to seek it out. One leg starts near the restaurant on the left side of the wide entrance arch. The other leg starts near the bar on the right side. On the first floor, they form a bridge, and then make one seven-storey spiral of rare Pavonazzo marble, so thickly veined it resembles Stilton cheese.
There are a couple more surprises. One is Pearl, a restaurant decorated with a wit and delicacy absent elsewhere, and with modern French cooking from Jun Tanaka. The other is the elegant spa and in particular its star therapist, Suraj Varma, who appeared to remove my frazzled head, soothe it and gently put it back during the most amazing hour-long treatment I have ever had. If only the hotel's decoration were as inspirational, this would be a sensational London address.
252 High Holborn, London, (020 7829 9888; www.marriott.co.uk) Doubles from £169 per night, including breakfast. Adapted rooms for guests with disabilities.
Telegraph rating (out of five)